Death and Disease and Christianity


My mind's been on and off the idea of death and disease in a Christian worldview for a little while now. It's a big part of why I don't currently attend church and have some difficulty really stating what I believe. Most days, I don't feel particularly attached to any idea and tend to talk myself in circles around them. I don't think I've figured anything out, nor do I think I'm the first to think of it, a revolutionary mind, or that I've exhausted even the most minimal of resources on the topic, but I feel like writing something down might help focus my mind a bit. Maybe I can make a bit of headway. Maybe not.

Minus that short stint in college (less than a year), I've never really been a "shiny, happy person". Faith has been a continuous struggle for me, even when I don't feel any cognitive dissonance. It's nearly always felt like an act -- no matter how genuine I was. So, when my newborn was on the brink of death a few years ago, when I saw the parents and children in the NICU that weren't so lucky, I got reasonably shaken.

The "Problem of Evil" has been around for awhile. I studied it in college in a number of varying forms. We talked about murderers and world that included them. I learned from various people about different theological approaches to our mortality. There were even some discussions about gratuitous suffering. I remember hearing a professor talk about a student he had that stupidly, drunkenly, climbed a radio tower and fell onto power lines. Unlike what you might think, the death wasn't instantaneous. He had difficulty understanding a God that would allow someone to roast in such a way. This professor recently died and I learned that he had since become a Roman Catholic.

Of the things I've heard about, I could probably boil them down into a few basic forms that have mostly simple responses. It's surprisingly easy to dispense with Hitler and even the drunk college student with cold, clinical precision. I'm finding it far more difficult to just talk about mortality in a coherent way.

The Beginning...

In the beginning, there wasn't any death or disease. There was creation. There was life. Things were good. God tells his creation not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge or they will die. They disobey and are expelled from Eden, from the tree of life, and from immortality. The first to die (discounting the fruit) are the animals God uses to clothe the humans in skins. Later, Cain invents murder and the first human in the book dies.

I'm willing to be that this vignette may be the most difficult thing to explain in any system that starts with it. I wonder whether the rest of any Jewish, Christian, or Muslim text is really just trying to make sense of the Genesis story, that everything that comes after is trying to make a coherent explanation of this set of events. I'm not that well read, so maybe that's why.

The Beginning of a Problem...

God is good. If God isn't good, I'm not sure God deserves worship. So, let's stick with God is good. Let's go ahead and take this another step further and banish the thought of moral relativism (which is crap anyway). God embodies goodness, performs only good acts, and can be judged on the same standard of morality as everyone else because that goodness is universal.

God is all-powerful. I'm not really sure what that fully means, but I think it's safe to say that God can pretty much do whatever God wants with the entirety of creation. This implies that God knows everything because, to be all-powerful, you would have to have sufficient knowledge to act in any way.

We have some degree of free will. If we don't, then this exercise is completely irrelevant. I may as well as "Sublime Text 3" what it thinks about the keys I'm hitting right now and then type out the response I want it to give. So, let's stick with free will exists.

Dying is bad. God doesn't like death. God doesn't like death so much that the whole of the New Testament exists. The early church fathers would say that Christ destroyed death through death and bestowed life upon those in the tombs. God isn't the author of death and disease, but separation from the will of God allows it to happen.

And, yet, here we are. Dying. Many of us won't die from dictators or the direct actions of ourselves or others. Many of us will simply cease to be. Our hearts will merely stop pumping. There are infants dying of fetal alcohol syndrome or abuse, but there are infants dying suddenly for either seemingly no cause or no presently avoidable one. Some good people die from viruses simply by going about their normal day. Many of us will merely be robbed of life and the rest of us may suffer the loss and be left to ask, "Why?"


I haven't the foggiest. The more I think about it, the less sense it makes to me. And this is true from any account of the fall and any account of salvation that I've heard. My favorite right now is the Orthodox version. I'll summarize it like this, though, this is probably a better explanation -- full disclosure: I skimmed it.

Sure. There's nuance and a lot of unpacking to do and, sure, I didn't go into any detail. But, this seems like the gist of it.

What's missing to me is how redemption required the actual death of anyone and, even further, why particular kinds of death? Why allow unpreventable diseases that kill infants or cause miscarriage? Why create microorganisms that cause disease and death? Even on this reading, it still seems evident that God uses death for some purpose and that he creates it, at least on some level. I can explain why God might lay waste to Sodom and Gomorrah because everyone was wicked. I can understand, on some level, a great flood. I don't know why I can semi-casually accept the wrath / justice / goodness that brought God to kill his enemies and the enemies of his people -- which is effectively a kind of genocide in some cases -- but remain unable to accept other kinds of death that seem borne out of nothing. But, somehow, I can.

There are theories of morality that relate to death which create situations in which it's impossible to judge the greater evil based on the amount or kind of death that occurs. Maybe that's part of where my answer lies. But I find it difficult to believe that malaria, old age, divine retribution, and murder have equal moral weight or, for that matter, that weighing them equally creates a better situation (because now you have a God that is no better than a murderer). It seems like a non-starter, but maybe.

So, maybe there's something there somewhere in the last 8,000 years or so of human history we can draw on (8,000 coming from some made up approximation of Judaism that I seem to recall from somewhere and obviously not from some terrible "young earth" theory), but does any kind of theory that justifies the different kinds of death have the requisite metaphysical explanation as to why death at all? And, if not, is there one that does? The closest we have here is that, in God's mercy, he turns us over to corruptibility and the power of Satan temporarily so that we aren't eternally separated from the divine presence without any explanation as to how death and corruptibility solve the problem.